Lying face down with a Buddhist monk slapping my back is not exactly how I expected to spend an afternoon in one of Ireland's top spa hotels.
Yet, I was having a ‘warrior massage’ in the five-star Monart Destination Spa in Co. Wexford.
The massage which is based around the meridians system of Chinese medicine was originally designed for warriors fighting throughout China hundreds of years ago. The monk chopping and clapping on my shoulders gave sound effects which were more suited to wartime than the calm and tranquillity of Monart. But, as brutal as it appeared, it left me feeling relaxed and energised in a way massage has never done before.
Two Shaolin monks (Master Zheng and Li) are in residence in Monart from now until December. They come from the Henan Province in China where they live at the Shaolin Temple. For many centuries the Shaolin monks have served the people of China as warriors and Buddhist monks earning respect for their discipline and bravery. They are famous for teaching martial arts, meditation, Buddhism as a way to improve health and wellbeing. At Monart they are offering the guests classes in these disciplines.
I took a Qi-Gong class which is a series of eight gentle flowing movements to breath. Its aim is to optimise the flow of Qi or energy all around the body and to the primary organs. Master Zheng taught Qi-Gong in a very clear way by breaking down each movement and repeating it before tying the sequence together.
His tuition at the morning meditation class was less instructive when he told us to “Close your eyes and think of nothing.” This was followed by a half hour of silence. Naturally, when someone tells me to think of nothing my mind does the opposite. Despite having experience in meditation, my thoughts started obsessing over what I’d eat for breakfast following the class. But even without the concentration necessary for mediation, the half hour of stillness was a great way to start the day and, as expected, breakfast was as delicious.
Other classes on the programme are the martial art techniques of Tai Chi, and Kung Fu for the more experienced. If you don’t feel like participating in any of the classes you can get a flavour of Shaolin practices by watching the show which the monks perform most evenings.
The concentration on Master Zheng and Master Li faces was amazing to watch. They had an intense calm about them as they ‘danced’ through their Tai Chi and Qi-Gong moves. Then almost like a flick of a switch they became fierce warriors practicing Kung Fu, sometimes with knives. The highlight of the show came with a practice of ‘hard Qi-Gong’ where Master Zheng uses his qi energy to put a needle through a pain of 3mm thick glass. The loud burst of a balloon on the other side of the glass confirmed his success.
Regardless of the monks’ presence, Monart is a very peaceful place to be. From the moment you arrive it is pure escapism. The decor has hints of Feng Shui and there is a sense of balance between the modern complex and the natural world outside. Every window offers a perfect scene which connects the guest to nature.
The hotel creates a dramatic first impression as it is set in 100 acres of countryside. An historic house (1740) is connected with a glass walkway to the modern building which houses the accommodation, bar, restaurant and spa.
There are 68 rooms and all have their own private balconies with either a woodland or a lake view. The rooms are spacious due to the high slanted ceilings, soft beige tones, and a large glass sliding door allowing plenty of natural light.
Use of the thermal spa is included in the room price. It offers a series of nine thermal treatments including saunas, ice bucket showers, aromatic steam room, salt grotto and a hydrotherapy pool. There are light and dark relaxation rooms and a full menu of spa treatments.
The gardens were designed by Chelsea Flower Show winner, Mary Reynolds. A waterfall, stream, mature trees and rolling hills all create a beautiful space ideal for a stroll. For a more challenging walk there is a 3-4 km trek called The Gallops.
The fine dining restaurant is recommended by the Michelin and Bridgestone Guides. The food and service are excellent. In keeping with the theme of wellness there are plenty of healthy choices and dishes for vegetarians and people with special dietary requirements.
So you don’t need to stay at a monastery, get up at 5am, chant and eat rice and vegetables to get a taste of Buddhist practices. In Monart you can experience the benefits of a retreat but with the luxury and comfort of five star surroundings.
A two-night stay with breakfast, one dinner and a treatment, as well as classes in meditation, costs from €235 per person sharing. For further information or to view a video of the Shaolin Monks in action see http://www.monart.ie/